Overtime debate generates more heat than light
20 April 2021, Paul Finch
London practices are debating that periodic issue: how do you win work without asking staff to work overtime, and if you do so, how should that work be remunerated?
This has been prompted by a ginger group of young architects, who are demanding that the RIBA ‘does something’ about this question, though it is unclear how many of the protestors are actually RIBA members.
As is usual when this issue comes trundling around, the chances of getting clarity of thought are as remote as any guarantee of a desired outcome. Judging by the some of the thinking of those involved, as expressed on magazine websites, the main aim of the campaign is to give practices and the RIBA a kicking rather than to propose constructive change. Student protest plus grievance politics always make an impressive noise, possibly advancing the personal careers of the cheerleaders.
For practices working in the context of a fiercely competitive fee culture, plus the problem of increasing demands from clients to provide proof that they have huge experience in designing the building type under consideration, the financial consequences of paying overtime with no certainty of outcome is just another reason to shed staff and live a quieter life.
Architects suggesting that this is all a client problem, and that they should change the way they treat practices, is an example of entitlement culture which cuts no ice with anyone except other architects, who join in stupid Twitter polls where they vote for everything to be lovely. Check the numbers who respond and ask yourself if they represent anyone other than themselves.
Blame culture is alive and well across the world. If only clients behaved more like patrons. If only planning regimes were staffed by people who really understood the world of architecture. If only contractors wanted to achieve the aesthetics aims of the designer. If only cost consultants would go away. In which case, the desires of the architect, the disinterested pursuer of beauty and truth, could be achieved rather than being frustrated by a malign conspiracy of capitalists, regulators and delivery regimes.
There is, in reality, no conspiracy. The world is as it is, and the task of the architect is to design solutions which are capable of delivery to the benefit of users and society at large. As such, this has nothing to do with overtime payments. The idea that some digital monitoring system could be used to enforce appropriate payment regimes is as sinister as it is unrealistic. How, for example, do you monitor thinking time as opposed to banging out working drawings?
In respect of the overtime question, having had long experience of negotiating employment terms and conditions, I would offer the following advice to the young architects who are, quite reasonably, unhappy with the current generally undefined situation. First, forget about payment for work done to win work, whether competition or presentation – unless that work results in a win. If it does, then remuneration in the form of a bonus should be sought. Otherwise, seek time off in lieu, which any smart employer should grant, not least because of burn-out.
Second, where overtime is being asked for because of client requirements in respect of a job in hand, then seek payment or time off in lieu where there is clear identifiable additional work undertaken – especially if it involves work over a weekend or at night.
Third, I would beware of trying to make these arrangements too precise, or to expect the RIBA to monitor practice behaviour as though it were responsible for what happens in individual offices, each with its own management, culture and individual managers. In the end, individuals are responsible for their own actions, including where they decide to work. The balance between individual satisfaction and corporate culture is not something than can be determined as though the sector as a whole is a giant public office.
In the end, architects are creatives who can vote with their feet, their intellects and their skills. Relying on unions or the RIBA to make everything in the garden lovely is a mug’s game.